For the regular spectator fencing is one swordplay sport. However, for those who hang around long enough confusion starts settling in when they are exposed to terms such as epee, foil or saber. When curious parents request more clarityin regards to the weapons of fencing I compare fencing with gymnastics. “Think of fencing as you would think of gymnastics,” I explain. “Gymnastics is the sport, but the sport has four different events. Similarly fencing is the sport, but the sport has three events: foil, saber or epee.” At a first glance foil, saber and epee appear to be similar, but in fact they are as different from each other as a beam routine is from a floor routine in gymnastics. Moreover, the difference is accentuated by the fact that usually each event has its own coach. Very rarely one single coach teaches foil, saber and epee. Also, a major difference is the style of footwork.
Before we dive in the dance of footwork it is wise to stop and give contour to our playground. The following footwork elements are used in the sport of fencing as a whole, yet individually each event favors only specific combinations. For instance, epee fencers would use combinations of small steps followed by actions with arm extended first because the whole body is a target and there is no right of way rule. Foil and saber fencers are mainly concerned with initiating actions first, and therefore footwork combinations that would produce initiative, since right of way is in play. Here are a few examples of basic elements of distance:
- Small/big advance
- Small/big retreat
- Jump forward and jump backward
- Hop in place
- Hop forward and hop backward
- Combination of steps
Like on a battlefield, each choice of footwork should have a tactical meaning. Nothing should be executed randomly without a specific purpose. For example, combination of slow and small forward moves followed by sudden big moves forward are executed with the purpose of “stealing” the distance in order to attack with a greater chance of success. Small advance coupled with a big advanced, or hop in place followed by a jump forward would accomplish such task. Or small retreat followed by a big retreat would be executed with the purpose of drawing the opponent into favorable striking distance. All three weapons, foil, epee and saber favor a certain type of footwork.
Advanced and elite fencers dedicate specific practice time to the study of distance. They understand that a touch cannot be scored unless the “dance” of distance is understood and properly applied. In his book The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin makes an interesting observation. Drawing from his experience as an elite chess and Thai Chi student he noticed that the act of learning is divided in three phases. The first phase is focused on absorbing information and correct execution. The second phase demands from the student to “feel” the opponent or the situation, and then execute already practiced solutions based on the information provided by feelings as it were. The third phase is creativity. In this stage not only that the student knows what to do and feels the opponent, but now creativity in finding options takes center stage. Similarly in fencing, the elements of fencing are known by all fencers and many fencers even learn how to “feel” the opponent. Yet creatively searching for options, courageously taking chances, and allow the brain for “out of the box” options is a skill that could determine the outcome of any fight.
The featured resource of the month Top Three Gaps in Fencing Training and How to Solve Them, distance is one of the gaps that challenges all fencers to become lifetime students of distance. Moreover, new trends in fencing are inspiring foilists and even epeeists to do footwork drills like saber fencers and vice-versa. Always changing and always demanding new skills, distance in fencing will continue to claim center stage in the upbringing of aspiring elite fencers.
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Waitzkin, J (2007). The Art of Learning. New York, NY: Free Press.